Federal Court to Ohio Healthcare Employees: COVID-19 Vaccine Requirements Are Legal

St. Elizabeth - Courtesy St. Elizabeth
Courtesy St. Elizabeth
St. Elizabeth

A new federal court decision could spell trouble for the ongoing spate of lawsuits against private employers that require vaccines.

On Sept. 24, St. Elizabeth Healthcare won a lawsuit brought on by employees (or former employees) who had believed the Greater Cincinnati hospital system's COVID-19 vaccine requirement to be unconstitutional. Unswayed by their arguments, U.S. District Judge David Bunning in Covington ruled that St. Elizabeth had the right to set employment terms, Reuters reports.

In August, St. Elizabeth and five other major Greater Cincinnati healthcare systems announced that they would require employees, providers, contractors and volunteers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by this fall, with St. Elizabeth giving an Oct. 1 deadline. With the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus spreading widely throughout Ohio since early summer, leaders of the hospital systems said that protecting their workforce while serving the community was paramount. Locally, Metro instituted a vax mandate, but no others followed.

Hospital leaders also announced that they would return to COVID safety protocols from earlier in the pandemic: mask requirements for both unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals within healthcare facilities and support areas plus social distancing.

The vaccine requirement went into effect as a condition of employment. All of the hospitals said there would be exceptions for medical reasons and strict religious beliefs.

Judge Bunning said that the employees who had filed the lawsuit against St. Elizabeth failed to establish that their individual liberties were violated.

Mark Guilfoyle, an attorney for St. Elizabeth, said that Bunning's ruling is the first involving a request for an injunction against a private employer's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

A number of lawsuits against private employers requiring COVID-19 vaccines are on dockets throughout the United States.

Ohio's COVID-19 Battleground
Ohio Rep. Kyle Koehler (R-Springfield) recently introduced House Bill 424, which would raise the threshold plaintiffs must meet to prevail on a COVID-19 lawsuit. Ohio plaintiffs would need to show that coronavirus exposure was caused by conduct that was “reckless,” “intentional,” “willful or wanton.”

The bill would provide protection from lawsuits for people who spread COVID-19 through negligence, generally defined as the failure to do something a reasonable person under the same circumstances would do.

The legislation would also ban schools, colleges, and government offices from requiring anyone to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or show proof of their immunization status. They would also not be allowed to deny anyone “full and equal treatment” of their services if they are unvaccinated, and they would not be able to fire unvaccinated employees.

Ohio Republicans have spent months pushing various proposals to limit or outlaw the ability of businesses, schools and employers to mandate vaccination. Koehler’s bill, however, is the first instance of this paired with protection for people who spread COVID-19.

Vaccinated people are five times less likely to be infected and more than 10 times less likely to wind up dead or hospitalized due to COVID-19, according to CDC data.

In 2020, lawmakers passed legislation establishing a similar immunity against COVID-19 claims. However, that bill contained no provisions regarding vaccines and expires on Sept. 30, 2021. Koehler’s bill would make permanent the immunity.

HB 424 would also provide immunity for healthcare providers during a declared disaster or state of emergency. This includes long-term care facilities, which were home to at least 8,000 of Ohio’s roughly 21,600 documented COVID-19 deaths.
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